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About the Institute

Profile of Darren Yuen

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Dr. Darren Yuen

By: Sylvia Dick

Dr. Darren Yuen, MD

  • Post-Doctoral Fellow, Cell Biology

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born and raised in Toronto and I did all my schooling at the University of Toronto. My undergraduate degree is in human biology and in medical school I specialized in internal medicine and nephrology. Since receiving my PhD I have been working on a post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Lisa Robinson here at SickKids.

2. What are you researching right now?
My focus is on kidney transplantation. There are still many issues with transporting and transplanting kidneys. A kidney may become available in North Bay, for example, and it needs to get to a child in Toronto. It could sit on ice for up to 10 hours or more and during that time there is risk of damage. At SickKids we are trying to develop a new treatment that will protect that kidney during transportation and transplantation. Our goal is to minimize the inflammation response that occurs in the recipient when a kidney is transplanted.  

Inflammation is a big problem and scientists and doctors are always trying to find ways to prevent it. Inflammation can cause scarring which is irreversible and will eventually lead to the loss of a kidney, and consequently the need for another transplant. We want the kidneys to last as long as possible in the patient, especially when you consider that the patients that we treat at SickKids are so young.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
Judah Folkman because he discovered how blood vessels form – a process called angiogenesis. He went against the grain and people didn’t buy his theories at first, but with time he was able to prove himself. I admire that he followed through with his beliefs. Even more impressive is how his theory has had a big time relevance for patients.

4. What scientific breakthrough most influenced your work and why?
I think this will become more apparent in the future, but I believe the work of Shinya Yamanaka in Japan is groundbreaking. He discovered that you can take mature skin cells from mice and reprogram them into immature stem cells. These immature stem cells can then be developed into any type of cell in the body. From a transplantation perspective this discovery is huge! There is a severe shortage of organs and this discovery could circumvent that problem.

This breakthrough means that scientists could theoretically grow the organ that is needed for a patient, and the body wouldn’t reject it because the cells are sourced from that same patient. I think this will revolutionize science and medicine.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
My son. He is a year and four months old and he is teaching my wife and I a lot about what’s important in life. We are both hardworking people but we want to be home with him as much as possible to see him learning new things – new toys, meeting new people in daycare – it’s a lot of fun. I’ll admit it, we have first-child syndrome.

6. Why science?
My passion for science is paired with my passion for medicine. As a physician I found that taking care of patients is really fun and rewarding. The rewards are instantaneous. I also found it frustrating, however, that in nephrology there is still so much unknown about kidney diseases. We can treat people up to a certain point, but after that point there are still a lot of unanswered questions. This conundrum is what led me to believe that the best way to contribute to healthcare overall is to be both a scientist and a doctor. This way I can see and treat patients, and still return to the lab and find answers to questions that could help them. Improvements in technology are helping to bridge the gap between discoveries in the lab and actual treatments for people, but it still takes time. If I make even one advancement that could make a difference in someone’s life, then it is worth it.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is a world-class hospital and research institute. To have the opportunity to work with people like my supervisor Lisa Robinson and others in the Cell Biology program is amazing. Many of the scientists here are leaders in their field and as a result this is an environment that really keeps you on your toes! The science here is cutting-edge and world-class experts are brought in to share their knowledge. All of these elements create a really vibrant atmosphere which fosters new and potentially life-saving ideas.

8. What are you reading right now?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is about a woman who had cervical cancer during the 1950s. Doctors at John Hopkins University took a sample of her cancer cells without telling her they were going to use it for research. Those cells ended up revolutionizing science and cell biology and today her cells are in labs all over the world. The book raises some interesting questions about bioethics and research. She made a big contribution (albeit unknowingly) and people have made millions of dollars by selling her cells for research, but she didn’t benefit from it at all nor did her family.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
First, pick what you love to do. Like anything, research has its ups and downs, so you want to make sure you really love what you are getting in to.

Second, find good mentors. They can make or break your experience. A good mentor provides a healthy atmosphere which allows you free range to ask questions while also offering guidance and support. There are great scientists out there who aren’t great mentors. Find people who are both.

10. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
It is extremely exciting to think about the world-class resources that will be available in the building. A lot of the research done by SickKids staff is currently not happening within our facilities because we don’t have enough space. It is essential to bring as many SickKids researchers as possible into one building. Being able to walk down the hall to speak with a colleague will optimize collaboration and there are great benefits to that.

December 2012